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This ground-breaking book analyses premodern whiteness as operations of fragility, precarity and racialicity across bodily and nonsomatic figurations. It examines works such as The Book of the Duchess, Pearl, The King of Tars and others, arguing that while whiteness participates crucially in the history of racialisation in the late medieval West, it does not denote or connote skin tone alone. Deploying diverse methodologies, the book asks how premodern whiteness as a representational trope both produces and delimits a range of medieval ideological regimes: courtly love and beauty, masculine subjectivity, Christian salvation, chivalric prowess, labour and consumption, social ethics or racialised European identity. The ‘before’ of whiteness, presupposing essence and teleology, is less a retro-futuristic temporisation – one that simultaneously looks backward and faces forward – than a discursive figuration of how white becomes whiteness. Fragility delineates the limits of ruling ideologies in performances of mourning as self-defence against perceived threats to subjectivity and desire; precarity registers the ruptures within normative values by foregrounding the unmarked vulnerability of the body politic and the violence of cultural aestheticisation; and racialicity attends to the politics of recognition and the technologies of enfleshment at the systemic edge of life and nonlife, of periodisation and of racial embodiment. If whiteness has hardened into an identity politics defined by skin tone alone, this book argues that it has not always been so. Operations of whiteness may generate differences that fabricate, structure and connect the social world, but these operative differences of whiteness are never transparent, stable or permanent.

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Operational whiteness
Wan-Chuan Kao

The introduction argues that contemporary critical whiteness studies does not afford premodern whiteness a conceptual space to exist. And within medieval studies, scholarship has continued to treat whiteness as primarily a phenomenon of skin colour and racialisation. But while whiteness participates crucially in the history of racialisation in the late medieval West, it does not denote or connote skin tone alone. Deploying diverse methodologies, this book considers premodern whiteness as operations of fragility, precarity and racialicity across bodily and nonsomatic figurations; it asks how whiteness as a trope produces but yet delimits a range of medieval ideological regimes. This project contends that the ‘before’ of whiteness, presupposing essence and teleology, is less a retro-futuristic temporisation – one that simultaneously looks backward and faces forward – than a discursive figuration of how white becomes whiteness. Fragility delineates the limits of ruling ideologies in performances of mourning as self-defence against perceived threats to subjectivity and desire; precarity registers the ruptures within normative values by foregrounding the unmarked vulnerability of the body politic and the violence of cultural aestheticisation; and racialicity attends to the politics of recognition and the technologies of enfleshment at the systemic edge of life and nonlife, of periodisation and of racial embodiment. If whiteness has hardened into an identity politics defined by skin tone alone, this book argues that it has not always been so. Operations of whiteness may generate differences that fabricate, structure and connect the social world, but these operative differences of whiteness are never transparent, stable or permanent.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter adopts the Middle English term defaute as theory and methodology, arguing that Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess exhibits two distinct modes of whiteness refracted through space and time. The first is a normative whiteness produced by the linkage of the courtly lady and male subjectivity, which makes possible a productive erasure of local and individual difference through a deliberate evocation of an international, universalising courtliness. The second is a particularising and literalising mode of whiteness that is emphatically ‘English’. The poem opens with the lady White but ends on a white castle on a hill that allude to John of Gaunt and his deceased wife Blanche. It is a whiteness that acknowledges its own limits or borders, be they linguistic, cultural or proto-national. The naming and mapping of the lady White appears to feed into the structuring of a universal and ideologically secure voice and identity coded as white, masculine and aristocratic. Yet the Dreamer’s literalising and Englishing mode of questioning the Man in Black interrupts the normal unfolding of consolation and insists on the local and the particular, for they are the specific tags of memories that shape subjectivity. The two male writing selves, practitioners of white fragility as a reactionary politics, present whiteness as embodying the universalising and the particularising modes of aristocratic self-fashioning. The Chaucerian ‘I’ is what I would term a ‘white fragiliac’, the masculine subject in mourning who must write his way out of whiteness as an extreme state of paralysis and death.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter reads the Middle English poem Pearl, arguing that materiality and fragility are key to understanding the poem’s engagement with desire and salvation. Whiteness, as embodied in the Pearl–Maiden’s body and clothes, signifies not only the purity and virginity of the Maiden but also the emerging spirituality of the urban middling classes, exemplified in the figure of the Dreamer–Jeweller. I then draw on the psychoanalytic works of Lacan and Žižek to examine the play of distance between the Dreamer and the Pearl–Maiden, as well as the use of the vanishing point and Derridean framing devices in the poem. The Maiden, as the Lady–Object, or the Lacanian object a, simultaneously attracts the Dreamer and keeps him at a distance across the stream. But if distance is crucial to the poem’s affective labour of mourning, then whiteness complicates desire’s play of proximity. The Dreamer is doomed to encircle endlessly both the Maiden and the Lamb of God at the heart of the New Jerusalem, whose whiteness is marred by a bleeding wound at its centre: a sign of the Dreamer’s trauma and of the woundedness of desire itself. I then examine the poem’s deliberate silence over the physical whitening of pearls; the Maiden embodies the object’s concealment of labour. Whiteness becomes a marker of artifice and the erasure of its history of production. This temporal erasure precipitates in the Dreamer’s inability to move beyond mourning. And white fragilisation is the process by which the normativity of whiteness congeals into cultural praxes.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter considers the intersection of whiteness, precarity and late medieval representations of the Passion. In medieval representations of the Jews, whiteness connotes not salvation but their veil of spiritual blindness. Through his characterisations of Christ and the devils in the Harrowing of Hell episode that evoke those in medieval Passion plays, Langland engages directly with late medieval theatrical culture. Of particular interest is the use of masks and leather costumes in the performance practices; devils were in blackface and black masks, and Christ in a white leather body-suit. The material and devotional practices of whitlether straddle the animal-human-divine continuum; the literal animal skin denotes the vulnerable flesh of God Incarnate and the charter of human redemption. If Christ’s body signifies the whole of Christian society, then Langland, by alluding to the material and devotional practices of white skins, steps outside of an imagined community organised on the basis of clothing and reconfigures the body politic as skin. I then read the whitlether suit through Didier Anzieu’s concept of the Skin Ego, arguing that the whitlether indexes the Passion and the distorted sense of precarity shaping Christian self-victimhood. At the interface of whiteness, leather and faith, the whitlether costume and the Christ Charter tradition figure Christian salvation as a theology of precarity; precarity defines the borders of a community. The shared sense of Christian precariousness, as a mode of governance, is premised on the precaritisation of the Jews as Europe’s internal Other that must be disciplined, ‘stretched’ and eradicated.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
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Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter examines the deformational forces of white precarity. It reads Chaucer’s Sir Thopas through cuteness to shift critical attention from the tale’s generic classification to questions of aesthetic and affect. Thopas, possessing a bread-like white face, is cute and cuddly. The production of cute features through infantilisation and feminisation triggers tender caretaking and sadistic aggression; the cute object is paradoxically held gently and squeezed violently. Cutification is a response to the racialised precarity posed by the religious and racial Other, especially by the Jews in the Prioress’s Tale. Anti-Semitic violence manifests as aesthetic deformation: the white face is squeezed and stretched to the breaking point. Under the duress of the cute response, the Chaucerian narrator, Thopas and the text become deformed. The flattening of physical and textual bodies leads to the obliteration of verticality and depth. Drawing on the superflat movement in Japanese contemporary art, I argue that cuteness in Sir Thopas effects a compression of the text’s narrative layers and semiotic networks. Mirroring the horizontal, non-linear organisation of the poem’s layout in medieval manuscripts, desire moves sideways across Sir Thopas. The lateral mobility and the agglutinating property of cuteness allow it to adhere to and cutify objects in its vicinity; the catalogues of romance tropes in Sir Thopas thereby function as cute object clusters within a late medieval middling household. As much as the narrative itself is pressurised, Sir Thopas makes affective and aesthetic demands on its audience, thereby ‘squeezing’ the audience as they squirm in shameful discomfort.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
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Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter examines the imbrication of whiteness, racialisation and conversion in the Middle English romance The King of Tars. The scopic regime of Christianity operates like a facial recognition system, whose limitations reflect ideological biases: faith determines whether an animate assemblage is a formless lump of flesh or an enfaced human body. Racialisation and conversion are somatechnologisations of the human, in which the figure of the turn enacts the interpellation of the white Christian subject. But the turn towards whiteness necessitates a backward turn – a dorsal turn – to the flesh, before the production of the body. It is a public secret whose revelation is only possible through the defacement of whiteness that has become normalised and social. Moreover, racialisation materialises as a double inscription of violence: first, on the flesh, then the body. Both articulations leave behind ineradicable hieroglyphics of brutality upon the material surface. Conversion imposes a white body upon the flesh, yet in medieval medicine, the natural colour of flesh is conceived as white. The white of the flesh therefore stands before the whiteness of the racialised and converted body. Whiteness as racial property defines the white melancholic subject, whose self-impoverishment is indistinguishable from their act of self-fashioning. The drive to fabricate and possess a white, racialised and Christian identity is the compulsion of habeas album: the production of the white melancholic body as thing and property. But before the making of property, the dorsality of whiteness is the structure of flesh behind the contours of the body.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter turns to the convergence of whiteness, periodisation and racialisation. Modernity, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney theorise, is sutured by the hold of the slave ship that generates a new kind of ‘feel and feeling’. The hold might appear to give birth to modern colonialism, capitalism and liberalism; yet by the fact of its emergence and its terrible cargo, the hold is already troubled by multiple temporalities. That is, the hold is a racialising and periodising technology. This chapter considers the premodern hold and asks, firstly, what forms it takes; secondly, what bodies it traffics; and thirdly, what racialised affective communities it produces. Whereas emotion works through historicisation to pin down a precise subject identity, affect deploys abstraction to construct a timeless truth about bodily intensity. I take Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale as my axiomatic example, where Canacee’s lappe is a magical object that recognises and enfolds racialised whiteness, in the form of a courtly female falcon, through empathy. Empathy, the act of feeling into a strange aesthetic object, person or situation, characterises the affective similitude interposed between Canacee and the falcon. Canacee’s empathic lap is one figuration of the premodern hold that attempts to contain and erase difference. Empathy as an approach to history and race is deeply problematic. Medieval romance – because of its insistence on historicity rather than history, periodicity rather than period and racialicity rather than race – is one crucial hold that figures affective abstraction and emotional historicisation as entangled modes of premodern racialisation and periodisation.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
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White environmentality
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter considers whiteness as a form of privileged environmental comfort and as an operation of racial recognition politics. I open with a reflection on modern whiteness as a deadly form of Foucauldian environmentality, then investigate the intersection among postmodern neomedievalism, environmental activism and nostalgic Southern pastoralism in crafting the ideology of American white supremacist groups, especially the fraternity formerly known as Identity Evropa that rose to international prominence in the aftermath of Charlottesville 2017. I also explore the intellectual underpinnings of Identitarianism in the work of Guillaume Faye, whose strategic deployments and polemical contortions of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ both mimic and co-opt academic discourse within early medieval studies; the rhetorical elision of ethnicity and race provides a convenient cover for mainstreaming pan-European white nationalism and revisionist historiography. Identitarians, by upgrading ecofascist tactics and Malthusian logic, situate themselves at the nexus of late capitalist precariat and contemporary economic, environmental and political crises. In contrast to Hedley Bull’s neomedievalism, Faye’s New Middle Ages is an archeofuturistic racialist imperium that rejects neoliberalism’s multiracial globalisation, revives fictive ancestral values and envisions a medievalised geopolitical sanctum of whiteness. I then shift to a reflection on white environmentality as a technique of racial violence in The Buried Giant, arguing that it takes the form of what Sloterdijk terms atmoterrorism. I end with a consideration of the politics of white fragility and precarity in the neoliberal university. Teaching Ishiguro’s novel, part of the literature of white liberalism, demands resistance to a racialised comfort zone of learning.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages